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TikTok weight loss ads
Illustration Callum Abbott

Eating disorder sufferers on the danger of weight loss ads on TikTok

The video sharing platform has banned adverts for under 18s that ‘promote a harmful or negative body image’, but its users say the damage has already been done

TextBrit DawsonIllustrationCallum Abbott

“I use TikTok to destress and to have a laugh, but it’s turned into yet another place for triggering content,” says 22-year-old Sacha*. “It just encourages me to behave destructively.”

Sacha, who suffers from an eating disorder and body dysmorphia, is referencing the incessant weight loss ads that pop up on her TikTok account. “Despite me so quickly skipping past and not interacting with them, they still come daily,” she tells Dazed.

Cumbria-based Sacha isn’t the only one struggling with this particular stream of adverts. 23-year-old Seherish, from Bradford, says the ads on her account are “so frequent, I remember them word for word”. She reveals: “In a 10-minute timescale, I’d see two to three of them – and if they weren’t ads, they were TikTok user videos promoting weight loss.”

Seherish cites TikTok’s endless, algorithmically-powered ‘For You’ page – which shows you clips from people you don’t necessarily follow – as part of the reason TikTok’s ads are particularly harmful. “I’ve seen lots of weight loss ads that don’t tend to bother me,” she explains, “but having them as part of your viewing without your choice is alarming. As someone who used to suffer from an eating disorder, and with this escalating during lockdown, seeing these ads was quite shocking.”

A recent study showed that many people with eating disorders found that their symptoms had been heightened amid coronavirus quarantine. In May, health experts warned that weight loss ads were fuelling eating disorders even further, but these cautions seemingly went unheard, as by July, Rolling Stone was reporting on a surge of intermittent-fasting app ads being seen on the platform. In a thread on Twitter, journalist Sophia Smith Galer exposed the extent of weight loss ads on her own TikTok, sharing a video specifically targeting lockdown weight gain, and revealing that TikTok continued to show her these ads despite her requests to avoid them.

One intermittent fasting ad – which sees a thin woman’s stomach Photoshopped to appear bigger, before shrinking down and leaving her in jeans way too big – has reportedly been seen 4.7 million times on TikTok.

As 69 per cent of the app’s users are aged between 13 and 24, the ubiquity of these ads is deeply concerning. “The majority of the users on the app are children and teenagers,” says London-based Eleanor, who previously suffered from an eating disorder, “so seeing apps that promote being skinny or dieting is very damaging.”

“I’ve seen lots of weight loss ads that don’t tend to bother me, but having them as part of your viewing without your choice is alarming” – Seherish, 23

This week (September 23), in an effort to tackle widespread complaints, TikTok announced that it will be banning adverts which promote fasting apps and weight loss supplements – though just for users under the age of 18. The new rules also restrict ads and content that “promote a harmful or negative body image”, and will see any eating disorder-related searches and hashtags redirected to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) helpline.

“As a society, weight stigma and body shaming pose both individual and cultural challenges, and we know the internet, if left unchecked, has the risk of exacerbating such issues,” TikTok said in a statement. “That’s why we’re focused on working to safeguard our community from harmful content and behaviour, while supporting an inclusive and body-positive environment.”

In an email to Dazed, TikTok asserted that fasting and diet apps were never allowed to be targeted at under 18s, and said that the new measures will enforce stricter guidelines to ensure that any reference to health, fitness, diet, or weight loss are made responsibly. Addressing concerns that ads could still slip through the cracks, TikTok said it’s putting greater emphasis on in-app reporting tools, and that it will reject any adverts that breach its content policies around negative body image.

Tom Quinn, the director of external affairs at Beat, says the eating disorder charity “welcomes the new measures”. But sufferers don’t think they go far enough. “It’s not just under 18s who are affected by this,” declares Sacha, “it’s dangerous for all ages.”

Seherish agrees. “I don’t think it’s sufficient at all,” she asserts. “Weight loss ads are not imperative enough to be showcased almost exclusively on a single app. If the ads are banned for those under 18, this doesn’t prevent younger people from accessing TikTok content that’s still heavily focused on dangerous weight loss.”

In April, Dazed spoke to teenagers about what TikTok needs to do better to protect them, after it emerged that pro-anorexia communities were proliferating on the app. “It’s mainly people in recovery,” one user said, “they’ll be posting ‘what I eat in a day’ videos and their food content will very clearly not be enough. When you have an eating disorder, you know that it’s competitive. You know that by posting that, people are going to see it and want to be at the level you’re at.”

“It’s not just under 18s who are affected by this, it’s dangerous for all ages” – Sacha*, 22

According to Beat, an estimated 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, with girls and young women aged between 12 and 20 most at risk. A 2002 report into weight loss advertising found that more than half of all these types of ads made use of false, unsubstantiated claims. Although a 2006 study showed that many teenage girls could recognise obvious deception, it also stated that “for girls, exposure to weight loss ads may cultivate attitudes about dieting that can have an effect on their health and lifestyle decisions throughout their lifetimes”.

“Weight loss products can be very attractive to people affected by eating disorders,” Quinn tells Dazed. “We know that the spread of these damaging weight loss claims, particularly the spike in fasting adverts shown on social media platforms, has caused great distress and risked triggering eating disorder behaviours in many of those suffering.”

“The ‘tips’ that the ads include are the behaviours I would engage in when I was at the height of my disorder,” reveals Seherish. “Fasting for over 12 hours, low calories, zero calorie foods. As they’re ads, young people might see this advice as credible. There’s already a rising theme on the app of glorifying thinness to reach a particular ‘aesthetic’, and the ads feed into this.”

Although these videos will obviously be triggering for eating disorder sufferers, social media can sometimes provide a safe space for healing. In recent years, sites like Instagram and YouTube have seen a rise in ‘eating disorder recovery influencers’, who share their stories and build communities of people who can help one another. Speaking to Dazed last year, Rebecca Leung, one of the most prominent ‘recovery influencers’, said creating vlogs about her journey has “propelled” her recovery.

However, Sacha says that the constant ads on her TikTok have caused her to relapse in her “disordered eating, calorie counting, and constant checking of how thin I look”. She says she’s now trying to stay off the app in order to “get myself back to normal”.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you can contact Beat in the UK here, and NEDA in the US here.

*Name has been changed

Correction (October 5): TikTok has confirmed that it’s banning ads that promote fasting apps and weight loss supplements for all users, not just under 18s. Other weight loss, diet, or fitness ads can be targeted to over 18s, but will be subject to tighter restrictions.